Tag Archives: Promiscuity

28. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

6 Jul

My Sister LIfe

My Sister Life by Maria Flook is number one on my list in my 20 Books of Summer challenge, inspired by Cathy at 746 Books. I’ve been avoiding this one for a few reasons. One, it has a depressing subject matter: It’s a memoir about how the author’s sister’s disappearance as a young teenager. Two, it was a little unclear from the cover copy what kind of book it was, since it seemed that the sister’s story would also be told. I wasn’t sure if it was a true memoir or a fiction hybrid, which gave me an off-feeling about it. And Three, a shallow reason to not read something: I’ve been avoiding Amazon by getting used books through Powell’s, and this was a particularly yellowing and unattractive book. A fancy design conceit where there was a hole in the front cover to indicate the sister’s absence looked vandalized and disturbing.

But how wrong I was to hesitate! This book was enthralling from the get-go, when, in chapter two, I realized that this would be a bad-mother memoir. In her first scene, the mother is getting dressed for a cocktail party, trekking “back and forth from her bureau to the closet dressed only in her strapless bra and panties.” She applies her “French Jean Patou perfume, pinching the rubber bulb of a cut-crystal atomizer. Next, she stooped before the full-length mirror to adjust her seamed stockings,” which she does “with insulated palms” wearing her short, white-cotton gloves for church. These details add up, gorgeously, until Flook explains that:

“Families take pride in their piety or in their prosperity, rejoicing in a father-and-son business venture, in a gifted child’s scholarship or in a prized commission in the military. But in our household Veronica’s enterprising sexuality overwhelmed our individual goals and spilled into family matters. Her erotic aspect emerged in her every routine and came more naturally to her than maternal duty.”

Flook’s thesis is simple but powerful. This cold, narcissistic woman did not provide love to her daughters and prevented their spineless father from doing so, either. The oldest sister, Karen, became promiscuous and ran away at age fourteen, to become a child prostitute. She lived in a trailer park with an abusive older ‘boyfriend’ named James and his other girlfriend, a woman named Ruth, who also ran a whorehouse where Karen soon started working. Amazingly, Karen preferred life with Ruth and James to the one at home with her well-off but frigid and mentally abusive parents. She left the world of luxury cruises and European vacations for the trailer park and prostitution without regret. Pitifully, she responds to Ruth and James’s affection and interest in her. James helps her steal a winter coat. They go out for ice cream and let her keep some of her earnings from prostitution. It’s extremely sad, but in Flook’s hands feels psychologically plausible.

Maria, the youngest child, also became a juvenile delinquent though a slightly more functional one. Her sister’s disappearance and the years where the family didn’t know if Karen was alive or dead turned Maria into a writer. She becomes morbid and obsessed with accidents and death, which she describes as “just keeping my eyes open.”

The book is powerfully written, full of subtle, sneaky metaphors for loss, and startling images that the writer uses to try to understand her experience.In one place she writes:

When one child goes missing, the remaining child is left untethered. I have seen a dog pull free of its collar and in its sudden freedom shudder, as if any connection it had had to the world remained in the coil of leather.

In another passage she recalls a childhood moment with Karen (as she does frequently) when little Maria has half-blinded herself with chlorine and her sister gives her a lollipop.

“I stared at the sucker” she writes. “Its glassy red bauble twinkled, exaggerated in my half-blind state. The candy warped the light with a kaleidoscope effect and it was just too beautiful to eat. ‘Aren’t you going to taste that?’ Karen asked me. Karen’s eyes weren’t blurred by the chlorine and she didn’t see the miraculous gift she had given me.”

Karen’s loss is a curse but it endows Maria with unusual powers.

I’ve written recently about terrible-stories-about-girls books, and how they unsatisfyingly present the drugs, promiscuity, abortions, etc., without seeming to delve into why. Flook delves. She may lay too much blame on her parents—the section where she explains that her mother bought her a pony to get her to spend more time away from home feels a little self-serving. But at least she’s looking for answers, making a powerful and articulate case for how she understands the forces that formed herself and her sister.

The second half of the book when Karen reappears and the sisters have some opportunities to be reunited but never really reconnect was less satisfying, especially since it brought up the same questions that made me hesitate over reading My Sister Life in the first place. How much of Maria’s startlingly clear retelling of Karen’s experiences is real? Karen doesn’t seem like she’d trust her sister enough to entrust such detailed recollections. One of the most unusual aspects of the book is that it does delve into the details and emotions of Karen’s experience  as a child prostitute so tenderly—Flook is retelling from a distance, and she doesn’t have the flatness of affect, anger, or defensiveness that often clouds such material when the author has been through it. The central question that kept me reading became How does she know? How did Flook and her sister heal the breach between them well enough to create this book? Frustratingly, that question was not answered.

 

25. Inside Madeline, by Paula Bomer

25 Jun

Paula Bomer

This blog post, which deals with Paula Bomer’s Inside Madeline will be number one of two that could fall under the subheading, “horrible stories about girls”—look for the second one, concerning Explosion by Zarina Zabrisky in upcoming days.

I like horrible stories about girls and I am also exhausted by horrible stories about girls. I understand horrible stories about girls. I remember their concerns—anorexia, promiscuity, rage, drug and alcohol abuse, hooking up with other girls, pregnancies and abortions, men in bands, “breasts” (a story title in Inside Madeline) “pussies” (same), denying or coming to terms with your body, relationships, passivity, mirroring yourself in other girls. All of those things.

Paula Bomer and I have more in common than that, too. The stories are set in Boston, where I grew up. The one named “cleveland circle house” conjures a neighborhood for me, a T-stop. She is also a crisp, smart, cold narrator whose casual alienation from the things she’s describing makes her good at her job. This is something I think about myself, in the (unpublished!) short fiction I write, and something I like in the fiction of friends—Alden Jones’s Unaccompanied Minors, another book of short stories about young people and sex, comes to mind.

These stories are page-turners, gripping, very easy to read in one sense, and difficult in another. I had a hard time with the gruesome body descriptions. “A week later her other nipple burst” about a girl growing breasts. “I know my breasts have disappeared completely and my nipples lay flat against my chest. I am aware that the new girl has hair growing out of her face. The girl’s body sprouts hair like moss on a tree stump, everywhere, to keep itself warm, to protect itself” in a story about anorexia. And then this, from the title story, “inside madeline”:

“When she bathed, she practiced more. The water lubricating her, in went one finger then two then three. Soon her hand slid deftly in. She then put bars of soap and within weeks, shampoo bottles inside of herself. Up went her rubber ducky. Up went the washcloth. Her mother would knock impatiently on the door…”

I cringe at this UTI waiting to happen!, but this story is one of the most difficult and best, about an overweight teenage girl who becomes obsessed with her vaginal capacity, and pursues the promiscuity to prove it. There’s a harrowing gang-bang scene that happens to one of the girl’s friends. The story is long, almost a novella, and the girl is cruel to herself in various ways, until she too ends up in the hospital for anorexia.

The two anorexia stories serve as brackets for the rest, rather nicely.

If my rapture is modified, I think partially I am just too old. I would really have identified with this in my 20s, found it ballsy and awesome. The cavernous Madeline scaring the shit out of everyone with her vaginal prowess is a clever idea, a great character, and also so sad. (Could this metaphor of absence, of ever-expanding internal negative space be played as empowering? I’m not sure and in any case Bomer doesn’t try. By the end of the story Madeline is anorexic, negating herself from the outside in as opposed to the inside out, the flip side of the same coin.)

But as a woman in my 40s I wanted more self-awareness in the narration, more character behind the characters. Some girls are really fucked up about sex and their bodies and womanhood, and some girls are not. Exploring the fucked-up terrain is awful and riveting. Bomer’s stories twist and thrash with it, kind of like a cat suffocating in a garbage bag (to steal an image from another Boston-area chronicler of halfway houses). Turn myself this way I’m tits, that way I’m a vagina, I’m anorexic, I’m fat, I’m obsessed with other women and also blind to them. I’m dying in here, in this feminine skinBut there are usually reasons behind these feelings, reasons involving love, family, community the particular details of a particular person’s psychology that make her herself, and not just a girl. Such reasons are the way in and also the way out of the bag. Inside Madeline doesn’t provide much in the way of reasons, which has a certain purity as a work of art, but also feels lacking.

Here’s my friend at Grab the Lapels reviewing another Bomer book, Nine Months.